Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Grant Reviewer Conflict in $40 Million Round at California Stem Cell Agency

Internationally renown scientist Lee Hood, winner of a National Medal of Science, violated the conflict of interest policies of the California stem cell agency earlier this year when he was involved in reviewing applications in a $40 million round to create genomics centers in California.

Lee Hood
Institute of Systems Biology photo
The agency quietly disclosed the February violation in letters dated April 2 to the leadership of the California Legislature. The letter (full text below) said that Hood “agreed that there was a conflict of interest that he had overlooked.”

The conflict of interest involved a $24 million application that included participation by another eminent scientist, Irv Weissman of Stanford University, and funding for facilities at Stanford.

Hood owns property jointly with Weissman in Montana. In 2008, San Francisco Magazine, in a well-reported piece on the ballot measure that created the stem cell agency, described the property as a ranch and Hood as Weissman's “good buddy.” Hood has co-authored research papers with Weissman. Both are on the scientific advisory board of Cellerant Therapeutics, Inc., of San Carlos, Ca., a firm co-founded by Weissman. Hood's nonprofit firm, Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, lists Stanford as a partner in the genetics of aging in humans. At Stanford, Weissman is director of the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, whose research involves aging. Weissman also serves on the Hood's institute's scientific advisory board.

Hood has not responded to an inquiry yesterday by the California Stem Cell Report for his perspective on the conflict of interest matter.

The conflict was not discovered by the agency during the review. It was raised by another reviewer at the end of the review, which, for the first time in CIRM history, failed to conclude with a decision supporting any of the proposals. Reviewers' comments have been sent back to applicants with another review scheduled for November. The agency said Hood will not take part in that session.

CIRM spokesman Kevin McCormack said today that Hood's conflict was “clearly a case of a new reviewer making an innocent error.” McCormack said it was not a violation of the state's conflict of interest law. The agency's conflict policies go beyond economic issues and deal with personal and professional conflicts. 

The agency's letter to the state legislative leadership said,
“Dr. Hood had not previously participated in a meeting of the GWG(grant review group), and as a result, he was not familiar with CIRM’s conflict of interest policy, particularly the policy’s inclusion of 'personal' conflicts of interest.  Thus, when he completed the conflict of interest form for the Genomics Awards review, he inadvertently neglected to indicate that he had a personal relationship with an investigator who was involved in one component of a joint application submitted by two institutions. Dr. Hood and the investigator are close personal friends and their families own vacation property together. Because of his personal relationship with the investigator, Dr. Hood had a conflict of interest with respect to the joint application under CIRM’s conflict of interest policies.”
The agency's letter said that Weissman would have received $11,000 over five years under the terms of the application, but that it also involved  "creation of a data center at one institution and three research projects that would be undertaken at (Weissman's) institution (Stanford). 

The California Stem Cell Report asked the agency about the involvement of CIRM President Alan Trounson, who has been a guest at the Montana ranch, and whether he recruited Hood as a reviewer. Last year, Trounson excused himself from participating in public discussion of another application involving Weissman.

McCormack said,
“Alan helps recruit many reviewers, including in this case Dr. Hood, but he is not involved in assigning reviewers to individual applications.”
The conflict of interest involving Hood was easily detectable in routine searches on the Internet, including a Google search on the search term “lee hood irv weissman.” The first two entries in that search yesterday turned up serious red flags.

Asked whether the agency performed “any sort of serious examination” of the confidential statements of interests filed by reviewers prior to review sessions, McCormack said,
“Yes, we do a serious examination of statements of interest from all our reviewers. However, this conflict was not identified by the reviewer either in the financial disclosure statement or identified in the conflict of interest list. Normally we do not check Google for all possible combinations of 15 GWG reviewers times about 200 individuals listed in these applications. That would be about 3000 independent Google searches to identify a possible conflict.”
The agency's legislative letter said that it plans to “amend its regulations to add greater clarity in an effort to prevent future conflicts from arising and to augment its efforts to educate reviewers, particularly new reviewers.”

Our take?

This is the latest in a series of questionable activities involving the stem cell agency, which is trying to come up with a plan to sustain itself after its state funding runs out in 2017(see here, here and here). The agency is giving more-than-serious consideration to an effort to raise funds from the private sector, which can lead to new and more difficult ethical considerations than a state-funded agency would normally face.

What these questionable activities demonstrate is that the $3 billion agency needs to give much more thought, to put it mildly, to its policies ranging from conflicts of interest to incompatible employee/director activities to the conduct of top management in providing special treatment for donors.

It also is clear that the statements of interests of reviewers are not examined closely for their accuracy by CIRM staff and attorneys. McCormack's remarks clearly indicate that the agency does not think it has time to be sure that no conflicts exist among its plethora of reviewers. That is precisely the reason reviewers' statements of interests – economic, professional and personal – should be made public rather than kept under wraps by CIRM. Then, interested parties, presumably mainly applicants, can check a panel of reviewers, if they wish, for conflicts in a particular round. Obviously, the agency can and should withhold the names of reviewers examining a specific application – the release of the names on the panel in a given review session is sufficient.

Tomorrow the CIRM governing board's evaluation subcommittee meets privately to discuss Alan Trounson's performance. It appears to be the second part of an evaluation process that began last October. Trounson's involvement with Weissman and Hood -- and his actions in connection with a $21,630 gift from a member of the public, albeit a not-so-ordinary member of the public -- should also be on the evaluation subcommittee agenda.

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